2010s: Favorite Video Game Music of the Decade

"Gaming Day" by EnviouSLAY

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

Video games? Those don’t exist! OK, they might exist. But in the context of music journalism, they might as well be a complete fabrication. Music composed for this medium tends to be ignored by our medium. (Certain exceptions notwithstanding.) But why must it? Is it because some critics simply don’t like video games? Is the value in the music not taken seriously enough? Is it too difficult to separate the music from the game itself and, like a film score, can’t reasonably be assessed on its own?

Whatever the reason, the video game music of the past decade has greatly challenged much of the above. A massive surge of indie games brought with it a wide variety of composers from different backgrounds and genres, all of whom have provided unique takes on how a video game could be scored. Meanwhile, a none too small number of AAA games had soundtracks that people could remember for one reason or another, permeating their lives the same way the music did for the worlds of those games. To call them cinematic would be to completely miss the point: the video game music in this past decade became its own thing, exiting the screen and into the ears of a loving public.

Oh, and, uh, let’s not forget that time Tiny Mix Tapes got kidnapped by ninjas.

It was with all this in mind when we decided to finally celebrate this shift with our favorite 20 video game soundtracks of the decade. The list is unranked and unordered, much like a sandbox game, as we take on the music of video games both inside and outside of the primary contexts in which they exist. From psychedelic vibes to understanding humanity’s role in the world, from climbing a mountain as an allegory on depression to climbing it as an expression of reimagining ambiance, from encapsulating the isolation of routine to the yearning of that which was never there and never will be, we cover the video game music we felt most effectively deepened the potential of the medium. To be sure, this list is not designed to be exhaustive, but intended as a starting point to explore a field that could use more ears and more critical attention.

..•´¯`•..•. PRESS A/✕ TO CONTINUE .•..•´¯`•..

NieR: Automata (2017)

Composers: Keiichi Okabe, Keigo Hoashi, Kuniyuki Takahasi


If human society survives long enough to form a consensus on the canon of video games, then I wager to guess that NieR: Automata will find a place within the form’s burgeoning modernist tradition. There are a myriad of threads to pull at here: the formal adventurousness of its mechanical systems, moral complexity, horny philosophizing, and foxhole humanity of its overarching narrative; the recurring absurd dialectic between patricidal brothers named Adam and Eve — NieR’s very own Vladimir and Estragon — all of these formal decisions were made in service of a function toward which few games ever aspire, to model a journey toward an understanding that life is fundamentally worth protecting and that people are worth forgiving. None of this is to claim that NieR: Automata was a tidy, easily digestible work; rather, it synthesized together themes and motifs with equal amounts bravery and stupidity. There was a pagan, heretical quality to its soundtrack that smoothed over the game’s rougher edges, that seduced and confounded, that drove home meaning much more effortlessly than the game’s sprawling narrative.

Stardew Valley (2016)

Composer: ConcernedApe


ConcernedApe, the sole developer behind Stardew Valley, put so much love into this project. If you spent time with Stardew Valley, then, like your life on the farm, the songs too would grow, becoming more engaging and increasingly synonymous with various events around Pelican Town. I had my friends in the valley, and their themes made me happy. A great soundtrack allowed players to feel everything they did in the game, in the outside world, free of the screen, like when I look outside my office window at 4:30 PM, and it’s already dark, so I put on “Winter (The Wind Can Be Still)” and remember that it’s OK to feel down sometimes. But if I just wait it out and try my best, things will grow again.

Minecraft (2011)

Composer: C418


A few notes plucked on simulated strings soar out across endless infinite plains, forests, and bluffs — or a maximum of 60 million square chunks’ worth of them, anyway — illuminating all they touch with curiosity. Of all the OSTs in the past decade, probably none have done as much heavy lifting as C418’s soundtrack for Minecraft. Anyone who played the game early on, prior to all its world-building updates, can relate to just how isolating the game felt at first. Even now, there are few moments in modern gaming as unexpectedly introspective as the underground mining-lighting-gathering ritual every player must undergo. And it is from those places of solitude that C418’s music rescued us, put soul in the game, transforming Minecraft’s landscape from an indifferent sandbox game into a wondrous digital idyll for creative gamers. Much of C418’s music served a similar purpose as The Sims’s “Build Mode” music did, complementing the mental work of its players rather than simply reflecting game elements, while also remaining true to the game’s minimalistic play style. Perhaps most importantly, though, it instilled an uncanny Hiraeth in our collective perception of this strange new place, as if our first time there was really our first time coming back.

Fez (2012)

Composer: Disasterpeace


In the 2010s, indie games adopted the pixelated aesthetic not only for budgetary reasons, but also for nostalgic and aesthetic ones. Fez paid glorious homage to the 8-bit eighties, but gave the gameplay a modern update by allowing our adorable protagonist Gomez to rotate his environment, a unique take on the classic two-dimensional side-scroller. While the soundtrack is clearly indebted to the crunchy timbres of chiptune, composer Disasterpeace used the style only as a jumping off point. Tracks like “Beacon” showed the emotive power of Disasterpeace’s composition (though still with a hint of bit reduction lurking in the lower register), while “Compass” and “Spirit” lifted players into the stratospheres of Fez’s lush, blocky worlds. What would Mega Man have felt like with music like this?

Dark Souls (2011)

Composer: Motoi Sakuraba


The only thing that kept me from ripping Dark Souls out my Xbox 360 was Motoi Sakuraba’s breathtaking soundtrack. This wasn’t no Final Fantasy score, where you were playing Garland for the 500th time… wait, it was exactly that! Was I stuck in a childhood of video games when the soundtrack still kept me bound to the experience? Or was this the 15th time I walked along the shallow mountainside where skeletons were continuously knocking me off? Bonfire respawn was my Repeat-Track function. One simply could not escape the gravity of Motoi Sakuraba’s masterwork soundtrack.

Celeste (2018)

Composer: Lena Raine


It’s a wonder that Lena Raine worked on the Guild Wars series considering how easily she can slip between big-tent blockbusters and the muted world of Celeste. Her soundtrack brought out the most pointed factors of the game — namely its focus on identity, depersonalization, anxiety, and acceptance. The music allowed the player to ponder the secrets of the mountain, lending an air of mystery that was duly complemented by the meticulously crafted gameplay. Raine’s signature motif of the soundtrack gave it that extra touch, consecrating Celeste’s best attribute: its ability to feel both vestedly singular and simultaneously shared with all who play it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

Composers: Manaka Kataoka, Hajime Wakai, Yasuaki Iwata


There were many hallmarks on the soundtrack to Breath of the Wild: the rolling ambient piano, mixing with the sounds of wind and rain; the ominous music ratcheting up in intensity every time Link neared one of the game’s many enemies; Kass, the Rito minstrel, singing songs with accordion accompaniment, feeding into the game and series’ lore. The music was so good that YouTube and Spotify are rich with mixes that feature fragments of the game’s music looping into infinity. Somehow, Kataoka, Wakai, and Iwata stamped this entry in the series with an unmistakable, long-lasting vibe: In another 10 years, the mere sound of this game’s piano tone will trigger tears in me, like the sea shanties of The Wind Waker or the weird lush pad textures of Ocarina of Time. And speaking of time: The Legend of Zelda has been with me longer than Tiny Mix Tapes, longer in fact than my love of any music I can think of (sans early childhood exposure to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and the swooning strings of Walt Disney films). It practically lives inside my heart. Not only did I dress up as Link for Halloween (people often mistook me for “Peter Pan”), but I also played the games themselves through some significant moments in my life: A Link to the Past through my parents’ divorce, Ocarina during a major mental health crisis, Skyward Sword when my daughter was born, and then Breath of the Wild when my daughter could finally play with me. Like the struggle between power, wisdom, and courage — Ganon, Zelda, and Link — this music is eternal.

Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)

Composers: Manami Kiyota, ACE+, Yoko Shimomura, Yasunori Mitsuda


Massive open-world environments, ever-evolving combat mechanics, metaphysical plot twists, abundant side quests, and hidden bosses: 2010’s Xenoblade Chronicles was, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious JRPGs ever made, both in scale and overall content. As the sonic backdrop for an 80-hours-plus epic taking place on two massive titans frozen in a fight to the death, its 4-disc soundtrack had to be epic, and its team of composers — ACE+, Manami Kiyota, and Yoko Shimomura (with a special appearance by Yasunori Mitsuda) — didn’t disappoint, delivering 90 tracks as musically diverse as the title is wide. And with a Xenoblade Chronicles coming to the Switch in 2020, its universe is ensured to expand even further.

Cuphead (2017)

Composer: Kristofer Maddigan


Take away the video game, and this soundtrack lost nothing. Cuphead’s music completely stood on its own, a beautifully recorded time capsule of a bygone era picked up and dropped into 2017 without a hint of irony, no winking, no 4th wall breaking. Kristofer Maddigan had a clear and deep love for this era of music, from 1910 to 1940, and just about every different style from the time. You’d catch some blues, big band jazz, backyard crooning, ragtime, even a saloon piano roll. It sounded crisp, it sounded fun, and most importantly, it made the game better. Each boss got tied in with their own musical theme, but Cuphead saved the best for the final boss. The live footage of the recording sessions are worth seeking out; the band was clearly having a great time, and it showed.

Portal 2 (2011)

Composer: Mike Morasky


dat A C I D tho … capitalizing fully on the decadent, sinister bleep-bloop aesthetics you’d expect to soundtrack the absurdity of Aperture Labs, Portal 2 was quite simply the sound of science — M A D science 👩 🔬 💉. It would’ve been cheesy if it weren’t so effective, resulting in a sound not unlike the persona of GLaDOS herself: sinister yet somehow goofy & strangely endearing (*cue end credits*). On top of that, the game’s “adaptive” soundtrack reacted in real time to players’ actions to actively compose dynamic soundscapes, such that, even the music was inflected by AI, we were kept motivated through all that research to be done. Continue testing!

Hyper Light Drifter (2016)

Composer: Disasterpeace


Hyper Light Drifter was inspired by developer Alex Preston’s ongoing struggle with heart disease, envisioning a future engulfed by black wraith-like beings while our hero constantly coughed up blood. Its blocky aesthetic may have seemed in line with all the other nostalgic, SNES-worshipping indie titles to come out this decade; but where many of those games labored to recreate the past, Hyper Light Drifter felt like something new and mysterious. Disasterpeace’s bleak, 16-bit drones were key in bringing this neon-hued world to life, swelling in radiant waves that suggested beauty while always bearing a haunted sense of loss. It was new-age music for a future that very well might never come, a final transmission from a dying world begging to see color one last time.

Limbo (2010)

Composer: Martin Stig Anderson


It was raining when the group of us kids got to the top of the mountain, and raining still when we were halfway down. I wasn’t an athletic or patient child, and the experience made me consider throwing my pack to the ground and bawling. A counselor took us below an outcropping and gave us each our reward: a can of tuna — green everyday label with a peel-back lid — and a sleeve of saltines. I scooped up fish with the dusty crackers, tears on my cheeks. It was one of the best damned things I ever tasted. Amazing what provisional experience can do to a can of tuna. Amazing how context can make prolific the prosaic. Ambient music only becomes background music when we let it. When we reimagine things a little, it becomes the promised “worth-it” for life’s ordeal. Just push a little harder, kids, your reward is right around the corner.

Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

Composers: Naoto Kubo, Shiho Fuji, Koji Kondo


It’s hard to believe that the Super Mario franchise could get any better, but the folks at Nintendo 1-Up’d (heyo!) themselves with Super Mario Odyssey, creating a game with the scope and variety that only one of their flagship titles could accommodate. The critically acclaimed Odyssey wouldn’t be anywhere without the gameplay at its core, but it was the catchy and anthemic “Jump Up, Super Star!” that represented a different milestone for the series: adding vocals to a Mario game for the first time. Reinventing former damsel-in-distress Pauline as a cabaret lounge singer (and Mayor!), the carefree jazzy arrangement captured the sheer fun of grabbing moons in Seaside Kingdom, bounding off Cappy in the Wooded Kingdom, or dashing around people in Metro Kingdom. Here we go!

DOOM (2016)

Composer: Mick Gordon



Moonlighter (2018)

Composers: David Fenn, Pablo Caballero


There’s a melody I hear carried on the wind, late at night, when I have trouble sleeping, and my mind wanders back to my younger days. This melody has the gentle rollick and teasing lilt of a madrigal, a song for a simpler time. I’m an old man now, old enough to fathom, and therefore regret, the swift and merciless current of time. Who at my age has time for adventure? There are bills to pay, bosses to serve, a whole host of responsibilities to maintain, and in service of what? A cycle that we didn’t create, a myth that compels us to keep buying and selling and serving the dreams of those long dead titans, who we pray never to meet, but toward whom we fear we are helplessly borne. What was I saying again? Forgive me, my memory isn’t what it used to be. Oh yes, there’s a melody I hear, and it waltzes through the deepest dungeons of my memory. What it means, I’ve toiled my whole life hoping to understand.

Undertale (2015)

Composer: Toby Fox


You could trace a line back through the greatest gaming OSTs to uncover the lineage of this chiptune-heavy soundtrack. Just like the video game, there were deliberate nods to the limitations of older games with the monosynths of the 8- and 16-bit eras, with the occasional stab of a modern xylophone drenched in reverb, an electric guitar fed through a dope pedalboard, or a Christmas orchestra complete with bells. Toby Fox leaned into genres to improve moments, so you could find traces of metal, a capella, and everything in between. If you’ve ever fought a boss, found a secret, or snuck around an enemy, you’d hear those moments here, but just a little warped. Also, Megalovania — immortalized via endless memes, references, and callbacks — was the anchor to this two-hour rollercoaster of game music history. If you heard it in the game, though, shame on you. You know why.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

Composer: Jeremy Soule


High Fantasy™ was nowhere on my radar growing up; the medieval knights & fire-breathing dragons of European folktales — not to mention the dwarves, elves, orcs & other species of many a D&D campaign — just didn’t resonate in my country. So it was late in the — *ahem* — game that the world of Skyrim introduced me to the idyllic joys of pulpy fantasy. In fact, I’d never been so fully absorbed into a game before as during my Skyrim playthroughs, & the game’s immersive potential owed a significant debt to its soundtrack. Having so often celebrated the ability of music to transport us to different spaces & times, it’s only natural for us to recognize a soundtrack that so effectively translated the idioms of medieval fantasy for even a newcomer to get swept up — to make us nostalgic for worlds in which we’ve never lived.

Risk of Rain 2 (2019)

Composer: Chris Christodoulou


Hopoo Games took a real risk (get it? ha) by deciding to change the roguelike Risk of Rain franchise from a 2D platformer to a 3D roamer for its sequel. It paid off immensely, making for one of the most consistently fun and replayable co-op experiences of 2019. Contributing vitally to that factor was the dimension-bridging electronica of Chris Christodoulou, who once again provided the game’s adventurous spirit and kept its players rallying on as they descended further and further into difficulty. Christodoulou stayed kaleidoscopic and immersive all the while. His hybridized chip/beat/digi-rock setpieces set a tone both cerebral and upbeat. It was invigorating when the action came while still leaving enough space for the action itself, with smooth productions beautifully mixed into the game’s audio, always gliding above, steady handed, cooly scoring the chaos.

Hotline Miami (2012)

Composer: Various Artists


Unsure how everyone else’s 2012 was happening, but these whack-club to heavy psych vibes in Hotline Miami were a gorgeous prelude to Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Wasn’t sure who was more stoned: the protagonist in Hotline Miami, the creators who made the visual experience a PG-13 trip, the gamers along for the ride, or the artists who gloriously composed the soundtrack. You know what, Ima just watch playthroughs the rest of tonight and smoke this weed for the ZP. Cheers!

Hollow Knight (2017)

Composer: Christopher Larkin


Why do I keep fighting? I see so many of my friends look at the world in its dark state and declare it lost. The fantasy and fetish of apocalypse, the off-handed remarks of the world ending as if it were a foregone conclusion, the shrugs that constantly follow. The clattering of conspiracies and “truths” as memes. I, as usual, keep my thoughts unknown. Scrambling for words to voice my reaction never suits me well, gives off a false impression. But I know these people to be…hedonistic. Self-defeating. Perhaps, in that particularly American way, selfish.

So why do I keep fighting, it the midst of such decay? Because I never harbored any illusions about this world. I never bought into hope or change, or greatness, because I knew I would always be an exception to those. This place was dark and sad long before my friends fell into delusion. Yet there is a beauty in it all I’ve learned to appreciate, a beauty I will defend. I walk along the paths of ruins, a mist clouding the storms ahead. Looking ahead, I know who my enemies are. And I will fight them. They may best me at times, but I will come back, retake my place, and return the favor. Because that is why I keep fighting: I must make things right, no matter the state of the world.

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

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